Les Grooms in Algeria

May 2001



What the Grooms learned about Algeria:

We went to Algeria and most importantly, we got back home again .

It's important to say out loud that Algeria is a magnificent country

It's important to talk about the Algerian people, about how sweet and gentle they are.

For those who don't know: at the invitation of the French Cultural Centre the Grooms left for a week-long tour of Algeria to play " The Tragic Flute " in Algiers, Oran and Annaba... In view of the prevailing political situation, no-one was too keen on the idea of gallivanting off to this part of the world... Besides, our departure corresponded with General Aussares' confessions about wartime tortures... the wonderful Algerian war of which some French military men are so proud. A lively atmosphere was in prospect!

In preparation for our visit, the French Embassy had insisted on very tight security arrangements, which obviously reassured everyone concerned : the Grooms, their wives, their children...

As well as the fear of a possible terrorist attack, there was also the worry that our show might be too shocking. The Grooms don't just play music, there's also quite a bit of physical contact with the audience... Is it possible to touch a Muslim woman who's standing next to her Muslim husband, in a Muslim country (The husband obviously being a fundamentalist)? And can a Muslim woman undress a Muslim man in public? With hindsight, this type of question seems to be indicative of the kind of preconceptions we hold in France concerning Algeria and the Arab world.

We discovered the truth about our prejudgements quite naturally, through meeting people. The atmosphere in the places where we performed (where there was always tight security) was pleasant;: the passers-by passed by, the shopkeepers kept shop and the city lived... We were also given an extremely warm reception: the staff of the French Cultural Centre and our bodyguards were marvellous ambassadors.

As for the show, conditions were completely normal. The public was receptive, gentle and naive... and very responsive. The atmosphere was at times very childlike . And as for the potential cultural problems, it was enough to do as we usually do: stop before going too far.

Finally, a big thank you to the French Cultural Centre for having twisted our arms to get us to Algeria. Here are some random anecdotes which might give a fuller flavour of our experiences,... " Ouesmek ", the Grooms' version.

Asmi Félix Martin Ouesmek?

My name is Félix Martin. What's yours?

When we play our Flute in the centre of Algiers there are about 50 armed men. They listen to the music, they have fun. For us it's great, it's an audience like any other.

One day, the hotel provides us with a rehearsal room, which is nice of them... it's a night-club, which is seemingly disused (full of broken glasses and dead spiders).

Nonetheless, very beautiful decor, with ceramics to make any tourist drool. The room is situated in the basement and seems inaccessible from the outside.

Nonetheless, a security guard stays with us for protection.

We play a tune, and all's fine. We play a second tune and still all's fine. During the third piece, however, our bodyguard collapses in tears. He tells us straight out that he's romantic and that our music moves him. We know nothing of these men's hidden sensitivities.

In Algeria, the armed men don't go around playing cowboys. On the contrary, they are fickle in love, full of passion and always with a paper hanky to hand. Fantastic.

Oran is the second city of Algeria..

The theatre in Oran is the biggest in Algeria's second city.

A quite perfect Italianate theatre., Very beautiful.

Like an ancient theatre in the heart of Clermont Ferrand

Like an ancient theatre in the heart of Versailles

Like an ancient theatre in the heart of Moulin

Like an ancient theatre in the heart of Rouen

Like an ancient theatre in the heart of Montbéliard

Like an ancient theatre in the heart of Villeurbanne

Like an ancient theatre in the heart of Dijon

Curtain-call: at the end of the show, Diego chooses a spectator to participate in the grand initiatory rite led by Sarastro himself (cf. " The Magic Flute " by Wolfgang himself). This spectator will be our Tamino, and it's often someone who is hairy, bearded, surly, chubby... Diego always chooses somebody "distinctive". During the curtain-call, to thank him, we present him with the CD of " The Flute ".

In Oran, Diego chose a deaf-mute who did not understand French (honestly!). When we offered him the CD,he was delighted.

Norredine and Abdel Kader formed our permanent escort. At the end of the stay, we hugged each other, and there were tears while we listened to Norredine saying his goodbyes in Arabic

Annaba: There was no window to use in the second act. So the local organizers, built us a small house perched on a wall.

The toilets in Algeria are neither hole-in-the-floor style nor European, but some kind of improvised affair. Sensitive persons beware. You might just as well shit anywhere, really .

I have fond memories of those in Annaba and of the dressing rooms too.

For reasons of security, we slept two in a room which we'll never do again, except for reasons of security.

Officially, Diego hadn't been snoring for the last 6 months... Information officially denied since our experience of sleeping two in a room in Algeria. After three nights, out of kindness, Diego took up residence in a pitch-black corridor so as not to disturb his neighbour any longer. (Laurent had huge bags under his eyes every morning).

That's where he slept. And there, cut off from everyone, it appears that Diego stopped snoring.

" Tell Zidane that Algeria loves him! ".

It is the first time that we've swum in the company of two armed men.

It is the first time that we've been escorted by men on motorbikes.

It is the first time that we don't have the right to leave the hotel

When we play " The Flute ", there's physical contact. We play our music amongst the audience. And we touch them. At the beginning we hardly dared, we were scared. And how were we supposed to play in our usual way? By ignoring local customs? By ignoring religion? In the end we let go of the fear, bit by bit.

The centre of Algiers is very beautiful but we didn't see it.

In the airport, you come into a room, and you're searched. Passport demanded.

In the airport, you leave a room and you're searched. Passport demanded.

You get in the bus. Passport demanded.

You get off the bus. Passport demanded.

To be allowed on the plane, you first have to identify your suitcase, which is laid out with all the other suitcases on the runway.

Otherwise your suitcase doesn't make it on to the plane.

The French and their attitude of superiority really piss me off. When I speak about Algeria, about the fantastic atmosphere, all I hear is: "it's normal, they are so heavily policed that it's in their interest to behave themselves!"

As everyone knows, heavy policing makes people friendly and welcoming.

( Apparently, all the people on death row in the United States are charming, pleasant, and happy people).

We ate in a restaurant within the fishing complex of Oran. We were a mix of bodyguards, theatre officials, local dignitaries and Grooms. And it was impossible to say who was who.

On the menu: fried food, fried food and more fried food. We ate with our fingers, the table-cloth was the communal plate, we talked about this, that and the other, and life was beautiful.

At such a meal, everyone is someone important.

On our last evening, we talked about the Arabs who are resident in France. . Apparently, those who spend their holidays in Algeria are really arrogant, and behave as if they owned the place. Our hosts told us that, for them Algeria is worthless, a provincial backwater... They come, they spend their money, they show off, and they leave.

During the discussion the same phrase keeps coming back: "you can keep them!"

This discussion reminded me of the Lozère region which is overrun in summer by people from the Gard, from Cévennes. The return of the 'Gardois' is seen as a veritable invasion. Between the people of the Gard and the people of the Lozère, there is real tension...

Algerian women are beautiful and feminine, including those who are veiled. In Annaba, a young Arabic woman watched the whole show from the front-row, trying all the time to sing along with us... I don't even know if she spoke French.

Arabic women...

Their eyes

Their expression

Their sense of repartee

Their warmth

And my soul is lost...

There are 20 daily newspapers in Algiers. They're a source of irritation to the régime; they complain, they criticise...

And now I learn that the powers-that-be have passed a law forbidding all cartoons which make fun of the President...

Bollocks to that.

Press conference: there were around thirty journalists and plenty of petit fours. Classy!

In an article the next day, something that Christophe said was attributed to another Groom. Since then Christophe claims that Algerian journalists are incompetent.

Will there be another Ouesmek in the future?

God only knows!


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